Gunilla Johansdotter (Bese) was a medieval lady of the castle who played an important role in the political power games of the early 1510s.
Gunilla Johansdotter, the daughter of Johan Bese, a privy councillor, and Karin Gädda, was a member of one of the most prominent Swedish families during the Sture period. She married Erik Turesson Bielke, also a privy councillor and a knight in 1490. He was appointed lord of the castle at Viborg and Sankt Olovborg (Nyslott) county in 1499. Gunilla Johansdotter lived in Viborg along with her husband and her children for more than ten years. She appears to have been fully integrated into the political and administrative relationships of the district.
Gunilla Johansdotter is best known for the brief but eventful period during which she was solely in charge of Viborg castle following her husband’s death. Erik died in 1511 at which point the “good lady Gunnhild” (in the sources she is listed as both Gunilla and Gunhild) was not only in charge of running the castle and financial matters but she also undertook diplomatic relations along the eastern border. It was, however, expected that she would soon hand over the castle, along with its contents, to a new appointee to be selected by the privy council. According to the customs of the time she would then be given another fief in its place.
However, Gunilla Johansdotter was dissatisfied with the replacement fief that the privy council offered her in replacement for Viborg and Olofsborg. She refused to allow the new lord of the castle, Nils Bosson (Grip), into the castle. Gunilla Johansdotter became an ally of the new regent, Sten Sture the younger, who actively recruited allies in his power struggle against a certain circle of aristocrats within the privy council. She also had the support of the lord of Raseborg castle, Tönne Eriksson (Tott), who acted as courier between Gunilla Johansdotter and Sten Sture. In 1512 Tönne Eriksson married Gunilla Johandsdotter’s daughter, Karin.
During the 1511–1513 period Gunilla Johansdotter began to negotiate with the Swedish authorities with reference to her claims. Although her letters were polite she basically informed the privy council and the regent that no-one would be allowed into either the town or the castle without her say so and that she had no intention of leaving the castle before she got what she wanted. She exploited the great distance that lay between the privy council in Stockholm and Viborg castle as well as the kingdom’s current sensitive political situation along the eastern border. It would have been very dangerous for the privy council to be in open conflict with the person who was responsible for two castles on the unstable eastern border.
Gunilla Johansdotter did not want to remain in command of the castle for a longer period but she saw to it that her own financial interests as well as those of her “poor fatherless children” were protected. The castle tenants were loyal to her and Nils Bosson had to make do with being accommodated close to the town as he waited to be allowed into the castle. Following a period of negotiations Gunilla Johansdotter was guaranteed a better fief in replacement for the current castle. Her new son-in-law, Tönne Eriksson, was appointed the replacement lord of Viborg castle, which meant that her daughter Karin succeeded her mother as the new lady of the castle.
Gunilla Johansdotter then departed from the eastern half of the kingdom and moved to her newly inherited property. It has been suggested that she may have served as an informant to Olaus Magnus when he was gathering information on Viborg and Olofsborg county and its history. She may be the source for the information on the so-called “Viborgska smällen” (Viborg explosion) which is noted in the Carta Marina and in Historia om de nordiska folken. Gunilla Johansdotter lived in Benhammar, Uppland, until her death circa 1553.